China Travel Tips

Basic Chinese for Travelers – Phrases + Links to Apps and Free Learning Tools

This page is intended for those people who haven’t had the luxury of doing a beginners Chinese course before having to/or choosing to step onto a plane and head for China. The page includes survival phrases, tools, apps plus links to loads of free resources for learning Mandarin Chinese.


First, for those that are completely new to the language, like myself, lets introduce a few key facts.

  • Mandarin (Putonghua) is the most common language spoken throughout China.
  • Hong Kong, and many people throughout Guangdong Province, speak Cantonese. Whilst similar to Mandarin, speakers of each will usually not understand each other.
  • Two people from different provinces, who both speak mandarin, may not understand each other due to accents. Think like, an American trying to understand to fast talking Irishman with a thick accent.
  • Pinyin is the Romanised transcription of Chinese characters perfected by a government team led by  Zhou Youguang whose story in itself is an insight into modern China.
  • Mandarin is a tone based language consisting of rising, falling, falling rising, and high level tone.

Tones can change the meaning of words, and this is possibly the trickiest part of the language especially for English speakers. For example, you could say hello in whatever pitch or tone you like, it may have a different connotation but everyone will still know what you mean. In mandarin you may pronounce the word correctly, but if the tone is incorrect, it can have a complete different meaning. For example gǒnglì is the name of an actor, gōnglǐ is also the name for kilometer, only the tones used are different.

Another example of the importance of tones and implications on meaning:





First tone ( – )


Second tone ( / )


Third tone ( V )


Fourth tone ( \ )

to scold

The same word, ma, has four different meanings depend on tone used!

More about tones:

A neat way to practice tones:


Should you even bother?

This raises a very important point, is it even worth bothering trying to speak Chinese? Of course if you going to be here for some time you’ll definitely want to, but otherwise it may be better to just be foreigner.

You might get brave and try to blunder out a few words, but if by the obscure chance anyone understood what you were saying, what are going to do when they respond in Chinese? Imagine it, the misunderstandings start to compound! Firstly they may mis-interpret what you are trying to say, secondly, when they respond you wont know what they are saying but they think you do. You can see this is going downhill. If you are going to learn, or more to the point, try and speak Chinese, then the first phrase you should understand is ‘wo ting bu dong’ meaning I don’t understand. Then learn ‘Dui bu qi’, Im sorry, then learn, ‘Wo de zhongwen bu hao’, my Chinese is no good.


Can deaf or the mute not travel?

I remember my first footsteps in China and the fear of not being able to communicate almost paralysed me, then I thought how does a deaf, blind or mute person get through life? If they can, I’m pretty lame if I don’t just get on with it.

If you are a traveller, I have found people in China are quite compassionate to the fact that you cannot speak the language. You’ll probably find that there will actually be lots of people, particularly those studying English, who will want to try and speak with you so they can practise, or at least experience using there skills in the real world, now is a great chance for you to try out some Chinese words…

In the top tier cities and top tourist destinations I always found it easy to find someone who spoke some English, and for most part I made it around the key tourist attractions and big cities without a word of Chinese. That said, the more you understand the language the deeper your experience will be.


Essential Tools

When travelling it is absolutely essential that you have a phrase book with you at all times and/or have your smartphone loaded up with some of the many free translate and Chinese – English dictionary’s that are available. I prefer to carry both, as batteries go flat…

Phrase Books

Lonely planet make a very useful pocket sized phrase book. It covers all the essential phrases a traveler may need. What it doesn’t have is local phrases, like names of attractions, that you may need when visiting a particular city, see further below under Get Localised.

Translator Apps

For Android check out:

Hanping Lite… which is an offline translator app, easy to use and you can search in Chinese, Pinyin or in English.

Google Translate… requires an internet connection, which Chinese mobile operators offer. Simply speak the word and wait for the translation.

Lonely Planet offer a translator app, haven’t tried but it’s an offline app so thats useful…lonelyplanet.key.en2zh 

You can also buy their phrasebook for use on Android devices…lonelyplanet.phrasebook.en.zh 

You should also install Chinese character input, in case a non-English speaking local wants to use your phones translator to explain something to you.

Also do a search on Google Play for the city you are visiting, quite often someone will have made an app providing travel guides, maps etc. A great example is the Discover Hong Kong app…hktb

I don’t have an iPhone but I’m sure the same or similar products are available on iTunes.

Online Pinyin Translator tools and English-Chinese Dictionaries – has a simple interface and input can be pinyin, English or in Hanzi (Chinese characters). Simple type in a word and get multiple results with English definition/translation plus pinyin plus Hanzi. –  again, a really clean interface. Accepts English, pinyin, Hanzi input and even stroke input. Also has lots of learning resources. – of course you’re all ready using this. Also, if you visit you’ll find loads of free extensions that can be added to the Chrome web browser including hover translate tools (i.e simply hover your mouse over the Chinese character and get a translation) some that even speech. – when you can’t access Google translate, try Baidu’s translator, it’s in Chinese but simply paste English into the text box and it will automatically translate it into Chinese.


 Essential Learning for Travelers

One of the first key goals should be able to understand the Pinyin System and the differing ways things are translated by this means. In particular, for directions, so lets talk about street names and common conventions.

A guide to understanding the translation of Chinese street names

Road sign featuring English translations

For example: Fumin Rd may also be referred to using Pinyin as Fu Min Lu, with Lu meaning road. More translations of street types below.

lù (路) = road
jiē (街) = street
dà dào大道(or Dadao) = Avenue
dà jiē大街 (or Dajie) = big street or main street
guó dào 国道 = national highway
dì dào 地道= tunnel/causeway
huán环 = Ring
hú tòng胡同= Lane or Alley
xiàng巷 = alley
duàn段= section

It’s quite common for roads in China, to be sectioned into a north section, south section etc.: Sichuan North Rd to which there is a Sichuan South rd. Sichuan North Road could also be translated as Sichuan Bei Lu.

Zhong (中) = centre
Nan (南) = south
Bei (北) = north
Dong (东) = east
Xi (西) = west

Roads are often sectioned numerically: South 3rd Ring Road Middle which could also be written in Pinyin as Nan San Huan Zhong Lu (nan meaning south, san meaning 3, huan meaning ring, zhong meaning middle, lu meaning road)

Yi = 1st or one
Er = 2nd or two
San = 3rd or 3
Si = 4th or four
Wu = 5th or five
Liu = 6th or six
Qi = 7th or seven
Ba = 8th or eight
Jiu = 9th or nine
Shi = 10th or ten

It’s quite possible to strike an area where the streets all have the same name, bar their numbering!

More examples of road name translations:
Chongwenmen Inner St. could also be written as Chong Wen Men Nei Da Jie
Chongwenmen Outer St. could also be written as Chong Wen Men Wai Da Jie
Damucang North 1st Alley could also be written as Da Mu Cang Bei Yi Xiang
West 3rd Ring Road 2nd Section could also be written as Xi San Huan Lu Er Duan

Note the names above, play around with Google maps some more to get your head around English and Pinyin translations. For fun, compare them to any printed maps you may have.


left – 左边- zuǒbiān
right – 右边- yòubiān
straight ahead – 往前走- wǎngqián zǒu
stop – 停 – tíng


Wheres the crapper?

Heres one phrase you should definitely learn: xǐshǒujiān zài nǎli? (洗手间在哪里?), meaning where is the bathroom/washroom. Xǐshǒujiān means washroom, zài meaning located at, nǎli meaning where. I often just keep it simple and with an inquisitive look say xǐshǒujiān, or Xǐshǒujiān nǎli, again in a freindly, inquisitive manner. Make use of body language to make up for your lack of spoken language skills.

Some other basics

I cant speak Chinese – Wǒ bú huì shuō zhōngwèn
Hello -你好 – Nǐ hǎo. Ni meaning you, hao meaning good
Please -请- Qǐng.
Thank you – 谢谢 – Xièxiè.
I’m sorry/excuse me – 对不起 – Duìbùqǐ.
I don’t understand – 我听不懂 – Wǒ tīng bù dǒng.
Help! (in emergencies) – 救命 – Jiùmìng!
I want – 我要 – wǒ yào
I don’t want – 我不要- Wǒ búyào
aspirin – 阿司匹林 – ā sī pǐ lín
Police -警察!- jǐngchá!
Doctor – 医生- yī shēng
Hospital -医院 – yī yuàn


Wo e le! I’m Hungry!

Eating in China is probably something you will want to do a lot of. There are so many different dishes throughout the different provinces that for the short term traveler you will probably want to have any dishes that you like/want to try written down in Chinese.Ordering at restaurants is easy when they have picture menus, simply point and order. Otherwise, just point at something that someone else is eating that looks inviting! It’s a little bit of a lucky dip, but that adds to the adventure, right?

If you have special needs you should have these written down and carry them with you, ie. Vegetarian, allergies etc.

I want – 我要 – wǒ yào
I don’t want – 我不要- Wǒ búyào

I’m a vegetarian – 我吃素的- wǒ chī sù de
If I eat peanuts, I’m dead! – 我吃花生, 我死了! – wǒ chīhuā shēng, wǒ sǐ  le!
breakfast – 早饭 – zǎofàn, or 早餐- zǎocān
lunch – 午饭 wǔfàn or zhōngfàn, or – 午餐 wǔcān
dinner – 晚饭- wǎnfàn, or 晚餐- wǎncān
beef – 牛肉- niúròu
pork – 猪肉- zhūròu,or simply ‘肉’ ròu.
lamb/mutton – 羊肉- yángròu
chicken – 鸡 jī
fish – 鱼 yú
cheese – 奶酪- nǎilào
eggs – 鸡蛋- jīdàn
bread – 面包- miànbāo
noodles – 面条- miàntiáo
fried rice – 炒饭 – chǎofàn
dumpling – 饺子- jiǎozi
rice – 米饭- mĭfàn
coffee – 咖啡- kāfēi
black coffee – 黑咖啡- hēi kāfēi
milk – 牛奶- niúnǎi
sugar – 糖- táng
salt – 盐 – yán
tea (drink) – 茶- chá
water – 水- shuĭ
bottled water – 瓶装水- píngzhuāng shuǐ
beer – 啤酒- píjiŭ


Useful free sites for beginners and travelers learning Chinese…/pinyin/ – nice clean site that has loads of popular phrases with pinyin translations and audio so you can hear the pronunciation.…/ChineseToGo.pdf – a printable pdf file containing a collection of phrases likely to be used while traveling. – another free site which has short video tutorials on common phrases – available free online, this comprehensive audio course covers the basics through to words and phrases for traveling, money, hotels, restaurants and more. has a table of all the sounds used in the Chinese language and audio files for each of the four tones

You Tube has loads of free tutorial videos for learning Chinese, here’s some useful ones for travelers and beginner learners

There is also a 10 part series produced by the BBC which can be viewed online for free (some content only available to UK viewers), offers free basic and intermediate Mandarin Chinese lessons in a structured course style.

 Enter the Da Shan

Mark Roswell is quite a famous foreigner in China and hosted a TV series, Travel in Chinese, on the local CCTV (China Central Television ) English channel that provided tutorials on Mandarin whilst visiting different travel destinations all over China. There was 100 episodes and they can be watched online for free…travelinchinese. There is also more resources at that site including Survival Chinese and videos from the new language series Growing Up with Chinese.


Get Localised

If your heading to a particular city do some research and copy & paste onto one page all the names of the attractions you won’t to see, foods you want to eat, and some basic phrases that you may need to use. Print it out and carry it with you. You may aslo be able to achieve the same with a map, but usually the writing is too small, or where you want to go may not even be marked on the map.